A Guide to Stoicism

April 13, 2009

My post on Tim Ferriss’ site is up and its called “Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs.”

It took a long time to put together but I think it’s the first real introduction to the most overlooked part of Western philosophy. The rest of the blogs that write about self-improvement and productivity have really dropped the ball when it comes to honest, practical advice, in favor of glib Eastern sayings. There is one thing that couldn’t fit in there but I think is still worth talking about, it’s the nature of what Stoic writing is.

Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations for his own personal study, never intending it for publication; Seneca‘s letters were a private exchange with a friend; Epictetus didn’t write a single thing down (handwritten notes from a student made their way to a young Marcus Aurelius). This puts their writing in a spirit that’s almost unheard of in the “self-help” category. When you’re writing for an audience, there is such a massive incentive to puff yourself up or present the best side of yourself that it becomes inherently fake.

The Stoics wrote personal exhortations so they lack the puffing and rationalization that comes from presenting yourself to an audience. When was the last time you read a self-help book where the author admitted that all their advice was difficult, that it was ok to fail at it because they did all the time too? Publication, for some reason, makes everyone feel like they have to pretend they’re perfect and that it’s not a struggle. Stoic writing is refreshingly clear of all that and, to me, that’s why it is important.

I would really recommend Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. It’s intense but it allows you to use philosophy as it was intended, as a way of life, rather than some academic pursuit.

For more on Stoicism visit The Daily Stoic

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

20 responses to A Guide to Stoicism

  1. I caught a misspelled “Deities” and “Stoic writing is much closer Yoga session…”

    There should be a “to” in there.

    Was there a conscious decision to leave out the concept of “Pay attention to what people do, not what they say?” That seems like valuable advice for entrepreneurs, as well as others.

  2. I’ve been following your site for years and I never knew you worked for Dov Charney. Great article.

  3. A condition of my recent employment was attendance of the http://www.landmarkeducation.com forum. I’m not a fan.

    Perverted stoicism at its foundation, perhaps?

    A woman in the group was told to face the fact that she had been raped: “it happened. you can choose to let it effect you, or choose to move on”. It sounded a lot like Marcus’s “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”

    but something is off. I felt dirty listening to the forum leader tell this woman to ‘just deal’.

    how do stoics deal with crime, injustice, violence done against them or the ones they love? is there room for regret, grief, vengeance, etc?

  4. Awesome piece, you must be happy to have written and published that.

    The Reverend Wright scandal, a frustrating case where your help goes unappreciated, the death of a loved one, none of those are “opportunities” in the normal sense of the word. In fact, they are the opposite. They are obstacles. What a Stoic does is turn every obstacle into an opportunity.

    I thought this part related a bit to the hustler’s mentality of reacting quickly to unforeseeable barriers. The thing to take away from both of them I think is finding the calm of mind to see above your own emotional reactions.

    It also reminded me of a line from Greene’s post of a while back:

    If you place yourself in the right pose, everything else will flow from that. Being pushed off balance is inevitable in any swordfight, but if you are able to resume this primary pose of balance quickly, quicker than your opponent, you will prevail.

    So maybe better than “calm of mind” would be “center of mind,” although I have a feeling this kind of waxing is exactly what you were railing against when you were talking about practice over discussion.

  5. When you talk about Obama dealing with the Wright scandal, you link to Kanye West’s blog, I think you meant to link to something else.

  6. As much as I enjoy your shorter, to-the-point entries on your blog, it was nice to read an expanded entry where you really had the opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of a topic that means so much to you.

    In the same vein as your earlier request to find out what the readers would like to see explained (and I’m loving that series in general), I would definitely favor a decision to branch out and continue doing occasional articles like Stoicism 101.

    How do you feel about public speaking? I know nothing about these things, but I can imagine a business/entrepreneurial association or conference paying a fair amount of money to bring you in to explain that theory to its members/attendees.

    As always, keep up the good work.

  7. @James

    Well there’s room just about anything because Stoicism isn’t a religion. You can take whatever you decide will work for you. I would say we’d be be better off with less grief, and less vengeance wouldn’t you agree?

  8. Wow that was refreshing. At school I’ve taken 3 ancient philosophy classes, and without a doubt your article is more practical and relevant than anything in those classes.

    It really is the difference between studying a history and studying a practice.

  9. Really impressive. Your Stoicism-based posts were the reason I started reading this blog back in Spring of ’07.

    My favorite quote you’ve posted here, but didn’t use in the article:

    “This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.”–Marcus Aurelius

  10. Its nice to see Stoicism explained to the readership of the 4HWW blog.

    The audience gets an endorsement for Stoicism (testimonial if you will) from Tim Ferriss, who holds a high level of admiration/respect from many of his readers.

    As I recall, Tim recommended reading Letters from a Stoic and Zorba the Greek in a post in late 2008, but it wasn’t the focus of the post – just a throw in.

    The influence from his book and blog is wide-spread and articles like this help to increase it. Well done.

  11. ‘According to nature’ you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living – estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative ‘live according to nature’ meant at bottom as much as ‘live according to life’ – how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?’ ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ by Nietzsche

    ‘It may be beneficial to consider what is often called ‘mental anguish,’ to ensure that the purely ‘painful’ elements do not distract from the analysis. A young man suffers because of the death of his bride of only 8 months. His grief is terrible because he loved her passionately; and so he suffers. Yet, if he was asked: do you wish to be relieved of you grief? he might hesitate. If it were possible for a laser to burn out of his brain precisely those cells which retained his memory of her, he might well refuse to submit to this therapy. The enormity of his grief, he may realize, simply is due to the enormity of his love. Had he not loved so much then, he would not grieve so much now. He may wish he could go back in time, or that she had not died, but even in his extremity he realizes the futility of such thinking. Thus, although he may bitterly resent his need to suffer and grieve, he would not opt to grieve at her death, for that would mean her death did not matter. Thus some kinds of suffering, such as grief, cannot be foresworn without the forfeiture of something so precious that the suffering demands acceptance.’ ‘Truth and Existence’ by Michael Gelven

    ‘If Machiavelli is right, if it is in principle impossible to be morally good and do one’s duty as this was conceived by common European, and especially Christian ethics, and at the same time build Sparta or even Periclean Athens or the Rome of the Republic or even of the Antonines. Then a conclusion of the first consequence follows: that the belief that the correct, objectively valid solution to the question of how men should live can in principle be discovered, is itself in principle not true… The idea of the world and of human society as a single intelligible structure is at the root of all the many various versions of natural law – the mathematical harmonies of the Pythagoreans, the logical ladder of Platonic Forms, the genetic-logical pattern of Aristotle, the divine Logos of the Stoics and the Christian Churches and of their secularised offshoots. The advance of the natural sciences generated more empirically conceived versions of this image as well as anthropomorphic similes: of Dame Nature as an adjuster of conflicting tendencies (as in Hume or Adam Smith), of Mistress Nature as the best way to happiness (as in the works of some French Encyclopaedists) … This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and atheistic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, that has been characteristic of Western civilization. It is the rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives have been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open. So great a reversal cannot, of course, be due to the acts of a single individual. It could scarcely have taken place in a stable social and moral order; many beside him, medieval nominalists and secularists , Renaissance humanists doubtless supplied their share of the dynamite…. it was Machiavelli who lit the fatal fuse. ‘The Originality of Machiavelli’ in Against the Current by Isaiah Berlin

    Stoicism may be useful as a secularised version of the Protestant work ethic but without its metaphysical justifications it seem little different from nihilism to me.

  12. It’s funny you should say that. Seneca once joked in a letter to someone who quoted some other philosopher: “So what if Zeno said this? Or Cleathes said that? What have you said?”

    It seems to me that you did was hobble together a few hunks of text from people other than you and thought that was enough. If you want to make an argument – especially one so rampant with condescension and contradictions – do it. Just don’t pawn all the thinking off on other people.

  13. Here is a discussion of this article and Stoicism at Joe Rogan’s forum:


  14. haha – had I read this before I embarked on my little “public accountability / share-with-the-world” 30 day stoic “experiment” a year ago, i probably would have understood more what you meant in our brief exchange. thanks for being a source of learning in my life.

  15. I found this short documentary interesting:

    2 points from it:

    – Fudoshin – similar to Stoics: Having a calm that cannot be broken by circumstances. Face every event with equanimity

    – Abraham Maslow: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself

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